Sift through the socks, DVDs, gadgets and expensive sweaters, and throw out the tie that Dad really doesn’t need – give the gift of a good read! Below are several books (in no particular order) to add to your personal reading list or give to someone you love. Most are doctrinal commentaries, varying in subject matter, with the exception of one fictional highlight. My only regret is that each book is worthy of a longer, more in-depth review. But for time-deprived, list-driven, last minute seasonal rushers, like myself – these recommendations are for you.
For other fiction recommendations see Jennie Hansen’s article, Christmas Wish List of LDS Authors.
By Elder Bruce C. Hafen
Marriage and the Joy of Human Love
In response to the stewing of anti-family legislation and excessive individualism, LDS writers are making their voices heard about the importance of family and the need to strengthen marriage. Among several works released this year, Elder Hafen’s Covenant Hearts is most powerful, most sensible and most heartening.
I actually read the Epilogue first, written by Marie K. Hafen. Maybe it was the woman’s perspective that piqued my interest or the fact that motherhood is still so fresh to me, but in a matter of seconds, Sister Hafen had me weeping. “From a Grandma’s Heart” is the title. She begins, “Daily, hourly, even minute by minute, I feel after you. And with my spiritual senses, I see you in your kitchens, I see you in your classrooms and with your friends. I see you with your parents and with each other. I see you there wherever you are, and I see the light in your faces. Though most days I am away from you, my heart turns to you always. And I want so much for that light to stay in your faces. I want so much for you to turn those faces to your parents and to your grandparents. And I want for your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ faces to be turned to you. I want the light to burn brighter. The world would douse that light if it could” (269).
Sister Hafen tangibly captures Malachi’s turning of hearts, longingly and joyously connecting generations, while attributing the grand possibility of this joy, to Jesus. Her words are about passing on faith through sacrifice. It is a tender matriarchal outreach that expresses perfectly the joy of marriage and human love.
In contrast to the many “how-to” books, Elder Hafen takes a “why” approach. Why are so many couples seeing their marriages fail? Why did God establish the covenant of marriage? Why work at a marriage when it might be the most challenging and demanding thing you do? Elder Hafen answers these questions on the premise of Elder Packer’s teaching that doctrine correctly understood leads to change.
The promise of living together in love, both here and beyond time, is worth waiting for, worth trying and crying for, through all the days of life (ix).
Loyalty to our husbands and wives – as well as to our children – can help make Christians of us, because trying honestly to be true to those who mean the most, and ask the most, will stretch us into real growth. Marriage and family life are among God’s chief institutions for perfecting us, often through painful, incredibly demanding experience” (31).
In preparation for writing this book, Elder Hafen spent the past ten years observing marriage. His law background gives him significant authority when explaining the legislative and societal happenings that have created a culture no longer supporting traditional marriage. He offers stilting statistics that make for eye-opening, even haunting analysis. These chapters have a more academic tone while the rest of the book teaches how the restored gospel can “transcend the modern chaos … keeping us realistically but securely, gathered in the arms of married love” (xiv).
Most of us know from experience that Church members are not immune to confusion about the nature and meaning of marriage. “These cultural shifts dangerously but subtly erode our desire, and therefore, our ability to sustain our own marriage commitment” (xiv). “We’ve always had temptation, always had challenges within families. But the new plague of modernity is that Satan has crossed the threshold of our homes more fully than ever before” (137).
A multitude of personal anecdotes, along with the use of major theatrical, musical and literary works act as teaching tools. I appreciate Elder Hafen’s use of art masters like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Roethke and Mozart, in addition to the scriptures and modern prophets. This was refreshing!
Poetic in his own right, Elder Hafen’s writing is replete with colorful imagery and strong, sensible points. I highly recommend this book for married couples to read together. It invites you to let the Lord breathe spiritual life into your covenant marriage.
Lengthen Your Stride
The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball
By Edward L. Kimball
Keep Moving, Keep Going
“Let us therefore press forward, lengthening our stride and rejoicing in our blessings and opportunities. I suppose if I have learned anything in life it is to keep moving, keep going” (Conference Report, April 1981, 105).
These words ring familiar. Lengthen Your Stride is the sequel to President Kimball’s earlier biography, Spencer W. Kimball, published in 1977. The 1977 biography covers his family history and growing-up years, including events that prepared him for the role of prophet. But it does not include the bulk of his presidential years. This follow-up biography speaks to issues and happenings from 1973-1985.
Edward L. Kimball (Kimball), son of the prophet, has spent many years researching and writing this book. Reviewers commented favorably on the candid nature of his earlier publication. This second biography is equally impressive. It is honest and open. Difficult issues are addressed tactfully with respect to involved individuals. Apparently, Kimball and his father talked occasionally about biographical writing and President Kimball felt “the story of a life should be told candidly, warts and all.’ His concern was that there should not be unfair emphasis on the warts. He knew that people’s mistakes often result from misunderstanding or from simple differences of perception and not from evil intent” (xvii).
I embraced this opportunity to learn about President Kimball. What a beloved man! Although a worried church sustained him as prophet, members quickly came to see his devotion to the work made him strong and mighty as an instrument of the Lord, despite his physical challenges.
Prophet and Person
The book discusses a myriad of issues the Church faced during those years, including the political and cultural climates of the time. This was most fascinating. From abortion and ERA, to the 1978 Priesthood Revelation, to the opening of foreign nations to gospel preaching, President Kimball was deeply involved in the workings of the world and God’s Church.
I love that the book is not confined to President Kimball’s administrative duties. We are given glimpse after glimpse into his personal life, his marriage to Camilla, her thoughts, and their children’s thoughts. We see him as father, husband, grandfather and friend.
Small intimacies of his life are revealed like his trouble tying a necktie or the old pair of shoes that kept resurfacing despite ardent attempts to buy him a new pair. Readers will come to know his sense of humor and his transcending love for people.
“The serious business of the weekly meetings of the First Presidency and the Twelve did not bar a spirit of camaraderie, a little gentle teasing. The group usually lunched together … and for dessert … passed around a box of Cummings chocolates – beginning with the First Presidency. As one of these meetings ended, President Kimball asked, Is there any further business?’ David B. Haight, then the junior apostle, queried, in fun, Is there any chance to reverse the usual order of choosing chocolates? I don’t care for dark chocolate, and by the time the box gets to me, that’s all there is left.’ Spencer joked, If you live long enough, you’ll move up into the light chocolates.'” (30).
According to Kimball, Spencer (as he refers to his father in the biography) was not “legalistic in his gospel understanding” (51). When one General Authority went to dedicate a meetinghouse on Sunday, he arrived half an hour earlier than expected and found the men working feverishly laying the last of the sod before the service. “Concerned with this working on the Sabbath, he reported the incident at the next meeting with the Presidency and Twelve. President Kimball said gently, Maybe next time you shouldn’t go early.'” (51).
Decline and Death
The chapters recounting President Kimball’s countless battles for health and survival are heartbreaking. He suffered so much, but remained ever grateful to the Lord. “The Lord has been so good to me,” he said while recovering from brain surgery.
“President Kimball was mostly a silent prophet during his last four years. Watching his slow and painful decline, many members wondered why the Lord would allow his prophet – who had already suffered so greatly during his long years of service – to suffer the indignities of a debilitated body and an inability to communicate freely. But perhaps the Lord wanted to offer the Church an example of humility, love and enduring to the end … Spencer once said, I still wonder what the Lord was thinking about, making a little country boy like me President of his Church, unless he knew that I didn’t have any sense and would just keep on working.’ No short man ever had a longer stride” (418-419).
Edward L. Kimball employed BYU Studies to create a CD Library that comes with the book. It includes an electronic copy of the printed book; 1600 footnote citations, sources, and photographs; an earlier, much longer detailed version of the biography with 3500 footnotes; and my personal favorite – audio of President Kimball’s voice before and after throat surgery.
Lengthen Your Stride is absorbing, fascinating and impressively honest. Edward L. Kimball lets us travel alongside one of the Lord’s most gentle yet powerful prophets. He gives us an opportunity to understand and know his father, Spencer W. Kimball, like we haven’t before. I smiled, at the book’s end, to think it felt like the prophet and I had become friends. Now I understand, that is probably how President Kimball would want me to feel.
Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet
Edited by Susan Easton Black and Andrew C. Skinner
Why this Book about Joseph?
So many books have been published this year in commemoration of the prophet’s 200th birthday. How does one choose? There is, of course, Richard Bushman’s newest examination of the prophet called Joseph, Rough Stone Rolling. To read Meridian’s interview with Bushman, click here. There have been books written to debunk the critics of Joseph Smith, books about the writings and teachings of Joseph, and books offering insight to his life with the hope of sharing lesser-known facts. But what of our testimony of Joseph as God’s chosen prophet?
How strong is your testimony of Joseph? What questions do you have about his life? Editors and writers of this book put these questions to you as a reader. That is why I recommend Joseph. It is meant to bolster your belief in God’s modern-day seer. It includes a series of short articles written with the hope that “readers … will find answer to their questions…and a spirit of testimony that will strengthen their own conviction that Joseph was a prophet of God” (xiii).
Contributors for this work refer to themselves as “disciple scholars” (xiii). Throughout the work their deep gratitude for Joseph is more than evident. About the first vision, Steven C. Harper writes, “Humbled by the demands of life, conscious of his own limitations and dependence upon the Almighty, desiring deeply to feel and shout and experience religion like the Methodists, Joseph Smith determined to take his question to the only remaining authority he had not consulted…There was no tumult, no shouts of rejoicing’, no anxious bench, no ‘deep tones of the preacher.’ Instead, Joseph had an unmediated, unquestionable experience … Afterwards he knew God. Though he was ridiculed, hounded, beaten, sued, threatened, and imprisoned, Joseph’s experience rendered him unshakeable” (34).
Among other topics, this exploration of the Prophet’s life includes the Smith family moving to Palmyra, the First Vision, visits from Moroni in 1823, translation of the Book of Mormon with specific attention to the Book of Lehi, establishing Zion in Missouri, the Kirtland Era, persecution and imprisonments of the Prophet, the Nauvoo Temple, Relief Society, and the Martyrdom.
The Sealing of a Testimony
If you have a desire to know Joseph better, including the people and atmosphere in which he was both beloved and despised, this collection will engage you.
If you think you are “already familiar” with Joseph’s life, think again. You will be masterfully taught, not only by these scholars, but also by the Lord’s spirit.
It is so appropriate during this celebratory year that we reaffirm, or if necessary, find our testimony of God’s anointed prophet and seer. These writings left me, once again, in awe of the man Joseph. His journey of abuse, suffering, and persecution were so extreme. These articles will bring you closer to the Joseph, closer to the Lord, and add yet another flame to your testimony of the Restoration.
Of Joseph’s death, Donald Q. Cannon and Zachary L. Largey write, “Joseph understood his mission in life. If he was not an imposter, then he would have to prove it, just as many of the Old and New Testament prophets did. And when Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies were returned to Nauvoo, and the pain that spread through the city began to abate, the church came to realize that Joseph’s martyrdom held a much larger meaning than the death of one man … such is the teaching of our current prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley: To quote a truism uttered long ago and in different circumstances, the blood of the martyrs has become the seed of the church.’ The testimonies which were sealed here in these very precincts, that hot and sultry day 150 years ago now nurture the faith of people around the world.'” (407-408).
“Joseph understood the need to make one final testimony to the world. And it is here, in the strength of a testimony marked with blood, that Joseph made his most valiant speech for what he believed and in whom he left his trust” (408).
By Marilynne Robinson
Reflections on Going
Gilead has been my favorite fictional read this year. Non-LDS author, Marilynne Robinson, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for this work. While Robinson’s earlier novel, Housekeeping, deals primarily with survival, Gilead is a novel about faith. LDS readers will be drawn to Robinson for her ability to unite believers of many kinds within the dying letters of an aged hero.
It is 1956 in Gilead, Iowa. Reverend John Ames begins writing to his young son about his life and ancestry, a way for his son to know him. “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it” (3). Ames is dying of heart disease. This knowing invokes within him a sense of tender meditation. Reminiscent of Annie Dillard, Robinson gives Ames the ability to spill his thoughts onto paper like a stream of semi-conscious thought. They seep with warmth, wisdom and imperfection all at the same time.
Robinson’s prose is demanding yet beautiful; gracefully written and illuminated with passages that beg to be read aloud. The delectability of the book is not in its plot or storyline, for very little twisting or turning takes place. Sweetness is found in the words themselves, the scenes they create, the feelings they emit.
Ames married a younger woman late in life. Together they had one son. He sees this son’s future for the experiences they will not share, the parts of himself he wants his son to know. He writes, “You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you” (52).
So Ames attempts to find those words. Here is an example of Robinson’s measured and breathless prose, a description Ames writes of his son. “You are standing up on the seat of your swing and sailing higher than you really ought to, with that bold, planted stance of a sailor on a billowy sea. The ropes are long and you are light and the ropes bow like cobwebs, laggardly, indolent. Your shirt is red – it is your favorite shirt – and you fly into the sunlight and pause there brilliantly for a second and then fall back into the shadows again. You appear to be altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light and what an absolute pleasure they were” (111-112).
Ames wrestles with memories of his father and grandfather, one a pacifist, the other caught up in the commotion of the civil war. Both were ministers, a patriarchal tradition Ames is simply continuing. But he loves the work. He loves God and God’s word. His great inner struggle, however, is over a strained relationship with his wayward god-son and namesake, John Ames Boughton (Jack). Jack returns to Gilead, surfacing feelings Ames had hoped to brush aside. Here, in the interplay of generations, Robinson speaks subtly to the sacred father/son relationship on both human and spiritual levels.
Robinson’s extraneous characters add complexity and intrigue to the story, but they do not necessarily move the book along. Gilead is slow and may not be captivating enough for some readers, but it is the kind of book worth savoring, especially for the poetic ear.
A radiant faith shines through Ames’ humanness, splitting past weaknesses that Robinson readily and humbly reveals. Always mindful of God working in his life, Ames is a praying man, a pondering man, a man trying diligently to make things right. While reflecting on his long wait before marriage, he writes, “I’m very grateful for whatever reluctance it was that kept me alone until your mother came. Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for” (55).
While the story speaks of faith in God, it speaks specifically about our need to trust God with those we love, even those we are trying to love. This is probably the most profound lesson.
I chose to include passages that wouldn’t give away too much of Robinson’s small story so I will conclude with one final reflection from Ames. His life is small, just like ours, but his observations grand, his ability to see divine.
To his son he writes, “I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your Mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face” (237).
It would be a shame to miss out on Gilead. Robinson skillfully guides us into an understanding that our mortal existence is priceless and peace within it comes from trusting the divine.